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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Kaapu — he did it his way

By David Shapiro

Kekoa D. Kaapu was an unusually engaging politician — bright, honest and personable, with a keen sense of humor that tended toward self-deprecation.

But Kaapu, who died last week at 66, was also the ultimate political loner, an idea man who danced to the beat of his own ipu and had little sense of how to organize a modern political campaign or channel his ambitions.

The contradictions made him a compelling figure in Hawai'i politics after statehood, a true bridge between the old and new Hawai'i.

Kaapu grew up in a grass house in Punalu'u amid taro patches and fishponds, the son of a prominent Hawaiian father and a haole mother born in Oregon and educated on the East Coast.

His own education started at Kamehameha Schools and later took him to Harvard University and a tour as a Marine Corps aviator.

Kaapu's intelligence, energetic appeal and unique background put him on a fast track when he returned to Hawai'i and entered politics. He landed a job as administrative assistant to the legendary Democratic Gov. John A. Burns, and in 1964 became the Honolulu City Council's youngest member at 27.

Astute observers like former City Clerk Eileen Lota believe Kaapu could have become Hawai'i's governor if he had waited for the right time to make his move for higher office. Others thought he was a natural to eventually become a $1 million-a-year trustee of Kamehameha Schools.

But Kaapu had no patience for paying his political dues, and the Honolulu mayor's office became his political Moby Dick.

He left the council after only one term to run for mayor in 1968, finishing last in a three-way Democratic primary won by Frank Fasi. He got his career back on track when Fasi appointed him deputy managing director, but three years later, Kaapu inexplicably quit the high-profile job to challenge his boss for mayor, again losing badly.

He returned to the council in 1975, only to see his term unravel over another ill-advised scheme to run for mayor — this time as a Republican.

Kaapu was on the ballot for one office or another in virtually every election of the past 25 years, but never again won anything more significant than a constitutional convention or neighborhood board seat.

The irony is that judging from the way he ran his own campaigns and career, Kaapu probably would have been a poor fit for the administrative duties of the mayor's office he so coveted. The slower and more contemplative tempo of his later years suited him far better.

Perhaps he ended up in exactly the role he was meant for — a charming gadfly who inspired us with his relentless civic-mindedness and challenged us with his ideas, integrity and commitment.

Kaapu was sometimes brilliant in his intricate analysis of complex issues such as Kaka'ako redevelopment and how high leasehold appraisals choked the local housing market.

In the controversies surrounding his beloved alma mater, Kamehameha Schools, Kaapu wrote eloquently about the need to combine the Hawaiian concepts of malama and pono (caring for one another in a just and righteous manner) with the Western concept of fiduciary trust.

Kaapu lost far more elections than he won, but he was a refreshing break from the current generation of cookie-cutter politicians with their hefty campaign funds, union endorsements and toxic timidity on important issues.

His career may not have reached the heights that he and others once envisioned, but Kekoa D. Kaapu made his mark in his own way and he'll be fondly remembered.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.